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As with other Asian countries obsessed with fair skin, there's a fair bit of theory spouted about the reasons why it is so in Pakistan. Some suggest it is an obsession with our former fair skinned overlords (Mughals and Brits) or that it has to do with the caste system that was present throughout South Asia or suggest more simply the notion that dark skin is associated with labor and field work in the sun.
Regardless of the reason, skin whitening is a big industry worldwide and especially in Africa and Asia. Globally, the industry was valued at around USD $4 Billion in 2017 per a report with projections suggesting it would double to over USD $8 Billion by 2024.
There are many Pakistani companies making whitening products - some of the better known ones are Golden Pearl Cream, Faiza Beauty Cream and Golden Girl while others such as Stillman's (operating in Pakistan since 1950) and Fair & Lovely (now Glow & Lovely) although not Pakistani brands are household names throughout the country.
Whitening creams from Pakistan have been sold internationally for decades and many of these brands have been banned in various countries due to violations regarding mercury content (and/or other issues).
For example, Golden Pearl Beauty Cream was reported to contain 12.0 g/kg mercury by the US FDA in 2019. This translates to 12000 ppm. A study published by the EEB (European Environmental Bureau) in November 2018 indicated that Faiza Beauty Cream 9053 ppm and Goree Beauty Cream 10576 PPM.
We have no intention of singling out Golden Pearl Cosmetics (or any other brand), this is simply one of the more recent examples. There have been similar reports regarding other whitening brands and even internationally renowned companies are at fault.
Recently, the Pakistani government ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury making it part of Pakistani law. This law that should come into effect by January 1st 2021 requires that the concentration of Mercury be no higher than 1 ppm in cosmetics and soaps.
The Minister of State for Climate Change, Ms.Zartaj Gul, has indicated that companies will be allowed to phase out these products despite the legal requirement imposed as of 1st January.
It is unlikely that the companies or the products will leave the market, rather the formulations will change and it may perhaps allow a resurgence in interest in herbal whitening methods. The past few years has seen the launch of numerous new brands that have a focus on natural, organic or herbal formulations and perhaps it is now their time to shine.
After all, for a very long time, we Pakistanis relied more on Ubtan and "totkays" for home made face masks containing natural ingredients like besan (gram flour), lime/lemon, rose water, etc. Brands such as Saeed Ghani, Conatural, Kishmish Organic etc simply remove the preparation process otherwise the end product is mostly the same as if you had prepared it at home.